The Road To Liberty Needs A Strategy

“Life is what happens while you’re making other plans”

John Lennon

Introduction

Sixty-nine years ago Friedrich von Hayek warned of the consequences of following the Road to Serfdom. Three months later Allied forces invaded Nazi-occupied France to start the long slog to retake western Europe from the forces of National Socialism. We now live in a socialist dystopia that our ancestors who fought in that war would struggle to recognise; this is despite the overwhelming volume of philosophical and economic literature supporting the efficacy of libertarian economics and societies. While in many areas we have won the argument we have struggled to make any significant impact towards a truly free society anywhere in the world; various shades of statism occupy every country. So I have been thinking about why we have failed in our endeavour.

Winning The Argument

We libertarians are great at arguing exactly how the minutiae of a perfect libertarian society would work, from policing and courts with contract disputes, health care, welfare, drugs, and even national defence. While we may not agree on the ideal society, whether it would involve minarchy or anarchy, we damn well know how its mechanisms would work in detail!

So how do we get to our ideal free society, or just closer to the free society that we yearn for? Well as the old joke goes “you don’t want to start from here”. That punchline sums up the uphill struggle we have.

If we are ever to achieve our goal of a free society then we libertarians need to define a strategy for how to achieve this fundamental change.

Barriers To A Free Society

Let us start by considering the status quo:

  • Public choice theory suggests that government will be influenced to legislate in favour of minorities who have more to gain from their subsidies, grants or anti-competitive levies than the sums charged in general taxation by the losers.
  • The ‘ratchet effect’ of ever-increasing taxation and/or legislation by the state that needs to justify its increasing budget to meet election promises to its constituents. Few people complain when an additional penny disappears in taxes each month; but the benefit to the state is £700,000, which it will never give up. Reducing taxation requires fighting the many ‘good causes’ that are beneficiaries of this expenditure which can be politically uncomfortable (for example the recent discussions about disability benefits).
  • The power structure unwilling to cede its authority, whether it is the civil service or professional politicians. These vested interests are paid from taxes taken from the populace, so are unlikely to want to reduce or forgo them. This can be seen by increasing salaries, expenses and index-linked pensions for many ‘public servants’.
  • A large bloc of the electorate that is reliant on welfare payments, from unemployment benefits needed as government sucks the productive private-sector economy dry, to ‘tax-credits’, the Milton Friedman-inspired negative income tax, that distorts the market. (‘Tax credits’ enable employers to pay their workforces less directly, with the subsidies coming from the employees’ own taxes and corporation tax.)
  • Democracy supports the status quo, for any who propose radical change cannot get established in the system.
  • Global institutions that require their own funding though cannot levy their own taxes, such as the EU, UN, NATO, WTO, World Bank, etc.
  • The corruption of politics, not only tainting people of principle who have to join in with the tribal political games, but the actual corruption of lobbyists and expenses, as displayed in the last few years.

The state has become its own living, breathing, self-replicating entity. I am surprised that nobody has thought to apply James Lovelock’s Gaia Theory to a theory of the state: it organises; it metabolises; it grows; it adapts; it breeds; and, most importantly, it responds to stimuli – it defends itself.

The humour of Yes Minister, where Sir Humphrey Appleby is happy to discuss reducing the size of the civil service, but wants a huge task force to study the subject, is far from fictional.

So this is the environment that we have to consider when contemplating any strategy for liberty.

How To Remove The State From Our Lives

So how can we make our ideal free society, how can we remove the state from our lives? Before you get your hopes up – I don’t have an answer to this problem, but there are various approaches that can be considered and I discuss some of them below.

  1. Entryism: infiltrating an existing political party with like-minded activists seems a quick win, as it enables the libertarian to leverage the existing democratic system and existing party apparatus. This was tried by the libertarians of FCS into the Conservative Party in the 1980s, with little success. There are also pockets of libertarians within other parties, such as the Liberal Democrats (sic) and UK Independence Party. Sadly it quickly becomes apparent that the existing party power structure will not cede power easily, and often a reaction is provoked that ends any libertarian aspirations.
  2. A libertarian party: The example of the United States is sufficient here. David Nolan who founded the Libertarian Party in 1971 has now given up on this strategy. With only 16% of people holding libertarian beliefs (in the US, probably less in the UK) it is highly unlikely that this approach can ever succeed in isolation. In my personal view even participating in the democratic political system taints the politicians, whether libertarian or not, and no libertarian party will ever succeed (sorry Pro-Liberty Party).
  3. Education: I have for a long time been an advocate of utilising ‘think tanks’ and ‘folk activism’ to educate the general populace of the efficacy of the market and that they state is simply not needed. However after 70 years of post-war state education promoting Bevan’s cradle-to-grave statist strategy, people just don’t realise that they can live without the all-encompassing state. However, I still believe that we need to educate people, weaning them off the narcotic that is the modern state, as no other method of transition will work by itself.
  4. Revolution: Let’s not be silly! Revolution, even with the benevolent dictator model, is more likely to lead to despotism even faster than democracy does. As stated earlier, the state responds to stimuli: in the UK even discussing revolution is effectively illegal – a terrorist act under our legislation. The state defends itself first and foremost, hence the frequent proposal of laws with heavier sentences for cop-killers than for those that would kill us.
  5. Seasteading: Although this is still currently the realm of fiction this method of creating a new stateless society is at least theoretically achievable. The Seasteading Institute was founded by Patri Friedman (David’s son and Milton’s grandson) and has attracted many supporters and investors, including Peter Thiel.
  6. Free States: Jason Sorens proposed the idea of concentrating libertarians in one area to effect political change, thereby inspiring the Free State Project in the US. New Hampshire was nominated as the target state and so far over 1,000 libertarians have moved there; the goal is 20,000 This project is already showing returns, as can be seen in this recent article in Reason ‘The Free State Project Grows Up‘. However it needs an autonomous political entity to succeed, such as a US state that has control over much of its legislation, and it needs to be small enough for the incoming libertarians to win or influence democratic votes. Whilst it is an attractive idea for all UK libertarians to move to a county to establish a libertarian society, it is worthless
  7. Fabianism: The infiltration of the intelligentsia and associated ruling class by the Fabian movement proved successful for promoting socialist ideals. A similar libertarian-minded project given time could sway the body politic, though it is unlikely to be enough by itself.
  8. Do-It-Ourselves: This is my only contribution to the debate. Let’s stop whingeing about the state institutions running our lives badly, let’s create our own institutions and aim for David Friedman’s Market Anarchism. Many businesses already exist that provide the same, or better, services than the state. Let’s publicise these. And where they don’t exist let’s build our own. If we can demonstrate to the populace that private health, transport, social housing, welfare, education, policing and arbitration are more cost-effective than the state’s versions, then how long before consumers vote with their feet?

A Suggested Strategy

I’ve not got any single magic answer to how we get to our objective of a stateless, or near-stateless, society. Personally I think the Folk Activism approach is useful for gaining much-needed support through education, but it alone cannot succeed. Like many other libertarians I don’t think we will ever have sufficient support to use the democratic system in our favour. Whilst the seasteading is the most likely to create small viable libertarian communities at some point in the future I don’t think it’s a viable alternative for most of us. The Free State Project has the most likelihood to succeed to a limited extent, but only within the constraints that the US Federal government will allow it to.

The solution I think is most likely to create a libertarian society is to Do-It-Ourselves. We can only convince the non-libertarians that a society best functions without state interference by demonstrating that to them. We must build the non-state institutions we want to see, and proselytise about those that already exist, here or elsewhere. We must demonstrate each and every aspect of a free society and explain why this is better than the state alternative.

Now this sounds impossible I admit – but we don’t need to eat the elephant whole.

While the state may have a virtual monopoly in many areas, which gives it an inherent cost advantage as it’s funded by mandatory taxes, we can compete with it by innovating, using technology to our advantage by creating new business models. We can be agile and move faster than the cumbersome leviathan state.

Imagine if, for instance, you were to set up a business to offer videoconference access to GPs over the internet using qualified doctors in, say, India? What could you charge for that service on a pay-per-visit basis? I imagine that £10 per visit would cover the costs with a healthy profit margin. What happens when that model becomes successful and increasing numbers of customers prefer that to the NHS? The government would have to either outlaw it, with much public controversy and legal challenges, compete, which is unlikely, or exit the market. A libertarian goal could be achieved peacefully without resorting to democracy or the distorting power of the state. After all if the game is weighted in their favour let’s not play by their rules.

Evolution Not Revolution

The successes of the Free State Project have come at a slow pace. Jason Sorens said in the Reason article that the strategy was “rather than build a new society [Free Staters] opted for incrementalism, making small but noticeable, meaningful changes“. This has proved somewhat successful in that new ideas are proposed and implemented, then can be tested against the objectors’ worries, one step at a time; this incremental approach to liberty is slowly undoing the ratchet effect, educating the people that society can exist without the state’s constant interference. We need to make small incremental changes towards freedom, changes that are testable with demonstrable results. As Patri Friedman says “power has inertia” – we cannot move this leviathan quickly.

Conclusion

We know what we want a free society to look like, but I don’t think that we will get there unless we start planning how to do it. If we just keep proselytising then we may never get to a free society, we need to act.

So this is my challenge to libertarians: go build the new society that you want. If we can outcompete the state, which I believe that we can, then the state must wither and die. We know that the free market is better, in competition with the state we will win: this is natural selection in action.

Postscript

I started writing this article based on a number of ideas I’d had for some time around our strategy for liberty. Whilst writing I came across a pertinent debate on Cato Unbound‘s website. An excellent essay by Patri Friedman called ‘Beyond Folk Activism‘ provoked thoughtful response essays from Jason Sorens, Brian Doherty and Peter Thiel. If you’re interested in this topic then I strongly recommend you read them all.

My Personal Journey To Liberty

Libertarianism is often a lonely path to follow. While this may be befitting of its individualist nature, it is intriguing to find how others have reached the same conclusion as you. I thought I’d document my own personal journey as an example of this.

I grew up in a household where my parents frequently argued over politics. My father was a union man and hence a Labour supporter, his best friend was Father of the Chapel (the title for a Shop Steward within SOGAT, the print union) at their employer; my mother was a Conservative supporter and had a strong anti-socialism streak. This left me with conflicting information about who was the ‘good’ and ‘bad’ party of the two, but also gave me a healthy appetite for debate.

Growing up in the 1970s and early 1980s was an interesting time to observe politics in action: power cuts in the evening; the miners’ strike that brought down Edward Heath; joining, and then nearly leaving, the EEC; the increasingly disastrous government of Harold Wilson then James Callaghan; the 1976 IMF bail-out loan and associated cuts; the Winter Of Discontent; the election of the first (and so far only) female Prime Minister; the Falklands War; numerous recessions; the Brixton riot and subsequent Scarman report; and the miners’ striking (yet again). These domestic challenges demonstrated to me at an early age the destructive power of politics and I developed a distrust of all politicians.

During this period the UK Punk scene began and I immediately found it appealing, the antithesis of the tired prog-rock and disco music that was prevalent at that time. I became a devotee of the Sex Pistols (still am) and quickly adopted their professed ideology Anarchy, scrawling its infamous logo across all of my school exercise books.

SexPistols

A few of my old Sex Pistols vinyl albums

I tried to read what little material I could find on the topic, but other than John Lydon’s brief rants, there was little available at my shoddy state comprehensive’s library. What did confuse me was why Lydon seemed to be advocating some form of socialism, when in my mind anarchy was an absence of state, so how can anarchists want more government, not less? It was nearly a decade before I was to discover anarcho-capitalism. In this period one book we read in English at school stuck with me: Animal Farm, by George Orwell; It led me to read Nineteen Eighty Four, which was a revelation.

My mother’s political views instilled a distrust of socialism in me, and at this stage of my life I had already planned to be a millionaire as an adult (note to that 11-year old: still waiting) so I wanted to retain my earnings. My mother had explained that under socialism, in extremis, the state would tell you what job you had to take* and would decide how much you should get paid; I loathed this idea as I didn’t trust someone else to make those decisions about my life.

In 1979 we had a mock election at school in parallel to the general election. I felt allegiance to my working-class roots and so supported Labour. It was the first and only time. Through the early 1980s I began to support the Conservative party as they seemed to be closer to my own capitalist leanings, though I did disagree on some policy areas. For instance I was, like many others at that time, interested in the nascent Citizens’ Band (CB) radio scene that was emerging. The craze was spreading from the US driven by the popularity of the film Convoy. I wanted to join in but it was illegal. The new Tory government refused to allow a technology that would allow its people to talk to each other in a peer-to-peer networking arrangement: at this time government still owned all telecommunications, including where you could site the hard-wired rented telephone in your own house; it wasn’t until 1984 that BT was privatised and a duopoly created with Mercury Communications (a subsidiary of the also-recently privatised Cable and Wireless). Ideologically I couldn’t understand how the state could ‘own’ the electromagnetic spectrum, it just didn’t make sense: it was like owning the air! In 1981 the government relented and CB was legalised, but using a separate set of channels in a slightly-different frequency range to the rest of Europe and the US, who both had one common frequency standard. I think the riots and general concern the government had about insurrection prevented us in the UK being allowed to talk freely with foreigners!

One of my sixth-form school friends introduced me to the concept of the free market and Milton Friedman. I even remember laying on a sun-lounger one summer reading Free To Choose. I left for university and naturally joined the university’s ‘Conservative and Unionist Association’, chaired the previous year by a young John Bercow before he graduated. The fact that we were Tories at the ‘most left-wing university in the country’ fitted well with my contrarian, argumentative nature and individualist philosophy. The association wasn’t without its own excitement, the first meeting I attended in late 1985 included a vote of no-confidence in the association’s chairman, Stuart Millson due to his ‘robust patriotic’ views in the material he was publishing on campus.

The history of the Federation of Conservative Students, of which we were members, is well documented. It was divided into three main groupings: the Wets, Authoritarians (mainly from the anti-immigration Monday Club) and Libertarians. I volunteered and joined my university’s association committee, eventually becoming its publicity officer and producing the association’s deliberately-inflammatory pamphlet (see below).

Essex University Conservative and Unionist Torch, circa 1986

Essex University Conservative and Unionist Torch, circa 1986

During this time I discovered the university library had a wealth of politics books of interest to me. Although I was there to study Electronic Engineering initially, although switched to Computer Science in year 2, my primary interest was politics and I read voraciously. I discovered John Stuart Mill, David Hume, Jeremy Bentham, Thomas Paine, Robert Heinlein, Ayn Rand, F. A. Hayek and eventually the authors of two books that changed my life: For A New Liberty by Murray Rothbard and Machinery Of Freedom by David Friedman. Through reading these books I discovered my natural libertarian home: anarcho-capitalism. It blended my dislike of authority and my belief in free trade in a consistent philosophy.

In this period I also found two sources of useful information: The Institute of Economic Affairs, to whose magazine I subscribed, and the Alternative Bookshop in Covent Garden, which I frequently visited. I remember a conversation at the bookshop one Saturday with Brian Micklethwait about taxation. I happened to mention that it was good to reduce the tax rates as this increased tax revenue**, an argument that we in FCS used to show that socialists only wanted high tax rates to punish the wealthy, not to help the poor. Brian rightly scoffed at me, asking why a libertarian would want the government to have more tax revenue. I realised that my libertarian-conservative position was inconsistent – sitting on the fence is a pain in the arse. I didn’t stay on that fence for much longer.

The last FCS conference I attended was in Leicester – I remember several of us standing waiting for a bus from the digs to the venue and chatting to FCS luminary Harry Phibbs, who was in trouble with Central Office at the time. He had published the FCS magazine New Agenda with an article by Nikolai Tolstoy about Lord Stockton (Harold MacMillan) sending 40,000 Cossacks back to their deaths in Russia after the end of World War 2. Calling a Tory party grandee a “War Criminal” on the front page of a journal published in Conservative Central Office was the last straw for the party: us self-styled ‘comrades’, we were often called the Troskyist entryists in the Tory party, had ‘gone too far’. FCS was shut down and replaced with a neutered tightly-controlled student group. The Leicester conference was infamous for its most extreme libertarian agenda under discussion. It was here that we passed the motion for free migration, unfettered migration in and out of the UK, completely anathema to the Monday Club-authoritarians and Wets. This show of strength by the growing libertarian caucus obviously frightened the party.

When it was announced that FCS was being closed I reviewed my beliefs and decided the Conservative Party was no longer a suitable place for an out-and-out libertarian, so I resigned.

The relevant portion of my resignation letter is included here:

ResignationFCS

My resignation from my university’s Conservative association

Since that point, in May 1987, I have regarded myself only as a libertarian; that is a believer in the non-aggression axiom and its natural conclusion: anarcho-capitalism as described by Rothbard and Friedman. Although staying out of party politics, and avoiding voting in all elections, I continued to support the libertarian cause. After dropping out of university, and earning my first pay packet, I bought $300 of books from the Laissez Faire Books in New York; I still have all of these. Since the adoption of the internet I sought out fellow libertarians (posting on the topic on Usenet back as far back as 1993). After a while I lost touch with the libertarian movement, only checking the Libertarian Alliance’s website a few years back, until I discovered Twitter and discovered the joy of blogging.

Finally I discovered Libertarian Home in the last few months. It’s a great meeting place for like-minded libertarians around London and it’s good to be involved again in debating our various views on the philosophy. After a break away from politics I plan to stay involved now and I am even considering formal study in the subject.

* Yes, the similarity to Workfare doesn’t escape me!
** I now know this as the Laffer curve, having seen the concept presented recently by Arthur Laffer himself.